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Writers put 1911 Labor Day in a new perspective

Published September 03. 2011 09:01AM


There's little argument that workers a century ago didn't earn the right or have good reason to celebrate Labor Day.

In a report to the senate on labor conditions at 344 iron and steel plants in the United States, Commerce and Labor Secretary Charles Nagel pointed out that a sampling of 90,000 employees found that one-third of them were working seven-day workweeks. A quarter of them were working 84 or more hours a week, which meant 12-hour workdays all week, including Sundays.

The Nagel report, however, stated that "Sunday work is no more necessary than in other industries where continuous operation in necessary." The report favored a shorter workweek for employees, the majority of whom were foreign-born.

"Almost half of the 90,000 employees receive less than 18 cents an hour, one quarter under 25 cents and the other one fourth 25 cents or over per hour," the report noted.

Only about 5 percent were earning 50 cents an hour or more in 1911 and only a few highly skilled employees were earning as much as $1.25 an hour.

In an opinion titled "Vacations for Work People" on July 28,1911, a Tamaqua Courier writer pointed to the lack of adequate rest as the main reason why persons in the manufacturing business were having physical problems so early in life.

"No human being can work 52 weeks in a year without suffering some physical decline," he stated. "At 60 years of age the great majority of our business and professional men are putting in their best licks. But how few men of 60 do you find in the machine shop and the mill?"

He said the working man who goes along year after year without taking some time off to recuperate was like the man who makes a small investment and "breaks into his principal to pay his ordinary expenses."

"The theory of 'working-class life' is that there shall be children coming along who will support the old folks after the physical capital is all consumed," he explained. "Usually there are. But in how many cases where children die, are sick or unsuccessful, or never come, is there heartbreaking poverty when the human machine is cast to the scrap heap before its time?"

Under these stressful conditions, he said everyone is a loser in society.

"If the people who do the solid work of our industries grow old 10 years before their time, the total production of our people is reduced by an enormous percentage," he said. "To this the ordinary manufacturer replies that vacations for work people mean heavier and prohibitory manufacturing costs."

He then predicted that the time would come that production would increase when industry officials come to an agreement that it is not beneficial to work over 52 weeks in a year.

No one group of workers deserved a holiday more than the anthracite miners of Panther Valley. In 1911 Lansford held what one writer called the biggest Labor Day celebration the area had ever seen. A committee worked on the special holiday for six weeks, "planning something for every minute of the day," the writer said.

The "monster Labor Day" parade, featuring 800 marchers and a number of floats, kicked off the day-long festivities at 10 a.m. Top float awards went to The Forest and Stream Club, the Beehive Store and Aniloskey's Theatre.

Despite a full day of parades, baseball and races, a Courier writer tried putting the day in perspective.

"This is an age when a host of people despise manual labor," he explained.

One work group that didn't fit that mold, however, was the farmer. Used to toiling 24/7 with no time off, some even considered Labor Day a "Loafer's Day." He said one farmer he knew scoffed that a man could "get all the parading he wants as he strides after his work horses in the hay field."

The writer said that when a laborer such as a blacksmith marches by in the parade, he epitomizes the spirit of craftsmanship and can speak volumes by just telling someone along the parade route that he appreciates his job.

"A little sermon on the dignity of labor has been preached," the writer explained. "It is more eloquent than speechmaking."

For realism, the reporter suggested that some parade marchers, such as the boiler makers, might consider wearing something more appropriate than the white shirts and "shiny tall hats" they donned for the parade.

"This costume would soon become soiled in the process of making a boiler," he stated. "He might more likely have them in their workday clothes, which would give a more vivid picture of their rugged strength and heroic endurance."

Although it may not have the historical significance or parade impact of holidays such as Independence Day or Memorial Day, the writer said that Labor Day has an impressiveness of its own.

"History is being made in every workshop where a man puts his heart into making good tools and good garments," he said.

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